I recently read Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata who is a science writer for the New York Times. I’ve read one of her earlier books, Ultimate Fitness, and knew she could take the dry facts and make them an interesting and compelling read.
In Rethinking Thin Kolata interleaves the chapters covering the history of weight loss and obesity research with interviews with four research subjects in a study comparing the merits of the Atkins diet with the LEARN (low fat) diet. Much of the information in the book I’d read elsewhere, but it seeing pulled together in one place was eye-opening. Some of what she reports:
- Over time, the weight for an ideal body has fallen lower and lower, putting more and more pressure on people to diet.
- No diet has been proven more effective at producing weight loss than any other. (I have read elsewhere, however, that the Mediterranean Diet produces better blood lipid levels.)
- Research done by Albert J. Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania shows that there is no significant difference in the way obese people eat and the way thin people eat.
- A study conducted in Europe in 1986 showed that adopted children are of the same fatness as their biological parents.
- The conclusion of a twin study in 1990 by Stunkard was that 70% of the variation of a population’s weight was due to inheritance.
- Short term studies on weight loss can be misleading, because the body’s homeostasis works over the long term to return to balance.
- According to endocrinologist Jeffrey S. Flier, “. . . weight regulation in humans is at the interface of free will and determinism. There is a strong biological underpinning to our drive to eat and maintain certain weights. . . . there is another layer of mechanisms by which things like hormones not only can affect the neurochemistry that affects how hungry you are, but also can affect the wiring of your brain.”
- Decades of research show that very few people lose substantial amounts of weight and keep it off. We probably have a set point range of 20 – 30 lbs. The best a dieter may expect to do is to maintain a loss of 10% to 15% of their body weight with constant vigilance.
- Obesity is not as dangerous as is commonly assumed. Studies casting doubt on the dangers of obesity have been ignored and attacked by the obesity “establishment” while simultaneously being praised by statisticians.
One deficiency of the book was a lack of information about research on that small percentage of people who do lose weight and keep it off. Kolata quoted James O. Hill of the University of Colorado only in the context of his opposition to the research done by Katherine Flegal and her team that showed that overweight (not obese) people have a lower mortality rate than people of so-called normal weight. Hill is one of the founders of The National Weight Control Registry, a research organization that studies people who have lost at least 30 lbs. and kept it off for at least a year. (The average weight loss of their registrants is about 60 lbs. and they’ve kept it off for an average of 5.5 years.)
Kolata also is dismissive of the ideas that eating more often at restaurants (which serve overly large meals),or our increased intake of fast food and processed food, has any significant impact on our increased incidence of obesity in the population as a whole.
I would also like to have seen more discussion of the relation of physical activity to weight loss.
What is interesting to me, beyond the data, is my reaction to this information. I feel both relieved that my body has been largely responsible for my weight through genetics and neurochemistry. I haven’t felt a desire to get really skinny for years, but now that I know that’s unrealistic, it’s off the table (no pun intended). With the exception of when I was really sick a couple years ago, my weight has been stable (within a 5 lb. range) for the last 20 years. On the other hand, I really hate “giving up.” It’s surprisingly difficult to accept that my body is happy right where it’s at, and will stubbornly protect itself from what it perceives as famine.
BTW, I’d like to recommend Heroic Stories to you. Subscribe to it, and every so often a story contributed by a reader will show up in your e-mailbox that will restore your faith in your fellow man.